Las Iguanas restaurant, Woking

The idea of simply putting down a few packing cases and creating a bar would not last long with the planning authorities in the UK, but at the latest Las Iguanas restaurant opening in Woking that was exactly the feel that designers B3 Designers  were looking to create. Steve Menary reports

Las Iguanas is the latest in a series of major new eateries to open up in Woking as the restaurant chains respond to a major regeneration programme in the town. For B3 Designers, the designers on the project, the scheme is a further opportunity to develop the Las Iguanas brand and the ambience that the Latin American-themed chain is looking to recreate.

“When we were brainstorming, we thought about how you would set up a bar in Brazil. You would rock up with a truck and some crates and create a bar,” says B3 Designers Design Director Mark Bithrey. “There’s a very Latin American feel and they have certain criteria. They don’t like naked light bulbs, for example. So we took that idea on board and moved it forward. It’s leaning towards Brazilian energy, what we refer to as favela chic. We spend a lot of our time convincing the client that it’s cool.”

The Woking project will produce a restaurant and bar with more than 200 covers and is the first Las Iguanas opening in Surrey. The town has attracted a number of other leading restaurant brands along Commercial Way, including Bill’s, Carluccio’s and also Tante Marie’s Culinary Academy restaurant, which has taken two floors in the refurbished Alexander House.

All of this is part of a town centre regeneration programme called Woking Works. This initiative includes a new 80-metre link road connecting Monument Road and Albert Drive, while Irish contractor McLaughlin & Harvey has been carrying out a programme of public realm improvements ranging from new granite paving, street furniture and lighting to planting new species of Sweetgum and Elm trees and facade and canopy enhancements to Wolsey Place Shopping Centre.

Property company Moyallen has spearheaded this regeneration with Woking Borough Council. The catalyst was the acquisition in 2009 by Moyallen, which already held a controlling stake in Bandstand Square in central Woking (the head lease on the main shopping centre, the Peacocks). Founded by Craigavon-based frozen food magnate Peter Robinson, Moyallen reportedly paid British Land £116 million for the head lease with the council retaining the freehold.

Food has been a key ingredient in the regeneration. A redeveloped Market Walk opened in autumn 2014 featuring kiosks, including a butcher’s, greengrocers, fishmongers and a delicatessen all offering fresh produce. This regeneration has added 21,551 square foot of extra restaurant to Commercial Way, and this proved an attraction for Las Iguanas.

“The sense of momentum in Woking is tangible, that is what drew us to Woking,” says Eren Ali, the managing director at Las Iguanas.

“Amongst the various options we considered, Woking stood out; the town not only has a clear vision, but through the actions of the Council and the other stake holders it is proactively, and very effectively, delivering it.”

Despite the name and brand, Las Iguanas is a UK business and started up in 1991 with a view to creating a restaurant brand that combined fresh ingredients with the native Latin American, Spanish, Portuguese and African influences that can be found in South American cooking. Las Iguanas now trades from over 35 locations in the UK and every restaurant provides a range of vegetarian, vegan, gluten free and Halal meat options.

McLaughlin & Harvey has also been working on the shell of the new Las Iguanas restaurant in Woking for the landlords to providing a clean shell for the chain’s own construction team to start work. Consultant Gardiner & Theobald is also working for the landlord and has been liaising with B3 Designers and Las Iguanas as the two previous units – an estate agents and a travel agents – are merged into a single 3,500 square foot space a cross two floors to cater for the restaurant and bar. In Woking, the ground floor will accommodate the kitchen, restaurant and bar, while the first floor will feature the toilets and the management office. However, design of the Las Iguanas restaurant is individual to each branch with work also overseen by an in-house team.

After completing a raft of projects for Las Iguanas, B3 Designers has developed five or six different designs across different sites.

“We are still trying to retain a feeling of quality,” says Mr Bithrey. “But because it’s a chain we made sure there are some different elements throughout, so they are not all the same.”

B3 Designers first began working with Las Iguanas at Mermaid Quay in Cardiff a few years ago as the group looked to expand as the overall economy emerged from recession. Mr Bithrey explains:

“When the recession hit, they took a bit of a breather to see what the market was doing and they realised that their market was holding up.

“In that period, they analysed the brand and realised they needed a fresh pair of eyes. So when we got involved it was an opportunity to look at the brand. When we started on Mermaid Quay, they wanted to explore their look. B3 Designers subsequently developed a strong relationship with the chain and has worked on new Las Iguanas openings in Bristol, Derby, Kingston, Norwich and Wembley, along with a number of refurbishments.

“They like a lot of fun; they’re a fun brand” says Katy Manolescue, B3 Designer’s senior designer on the Woking restaurant.

“They appeal to a younger crowd and also large groups and families, so they transcend age groups. They are colourful and energetic. We’ve all become accustomed to it becoming too polished and chic.”

The aim is to provide a venue that is clearly not a pub, but not solely a restaurant either and the décor and design offering must reflect that.

“The atmosphere and the music is quite flamboyant,” adds Mr Bithrey.

That approach has seen B3 Designers and the Las Iguanas construction team look not in builders’ yards for construction materials, but in salvage yards and on eBay. Ms Manolescue sourced second hand wooden joists for the restaurant ceiling to provide a distinctive feel that fits in with the favela chic motif.

Some of the walls will also be covered with reclaim sash and Georgian wooden windows sourced from a salvage yard and to be painted in what B3 Designers describe as “poppy, vibrant colours.” The design is intended to reflect the resourcefulness of Brazil.

Mr Bithrey adds: “We have got some crates, a TV, light fittings and fans and illuminated it. When you look at it, you are thinking it’s been knocked up in 30 minutes before the restaurant opened.”

Of course, what appears loosely assembled is all firmly attached but B3 Designers have also taken the opportunity to incorporate the concrete coffer ceilings in the bare shell that the construction team into their restaurant design.

Mr Bithrey says: “We try to respond to the space we are given. The ceiling referenced Brazilian architecture and that got us excited.”

The other materials specified in the B3 Designers design include encaustic concrete tiles in a variety of colours. The hand-glazed tiles have been sourced from a Spanish company, Mosaic del Sur, which manufacturers the tiles in Morocco. The tiles will run up to dado rail height. The design will also feature murals on some of the brickworks to reference the Latin American feel.

In some Las Iguanas restaurants, granite floors have caused maintenance issues, In Woking, B3 Designers has specified tiles with a variety of intricate patterns in keeping with both Latin America and the favela chic notion. However, Las Iguanas are not looking for excessive colour.

“They don’t like too strong a colour; they like their sunshine yellow,” reflects Ms Manolescue.

The client has also specified what B3 Designers describe as a ‘sunset wall’ which is intended to give them impression of the sun going down and must be painted coral.

Internally, the scheme will occupy two floors but the outside is a double height atrium, which is stepped out into the shopping centre. That has enabled the design to include 45 seats outside and also allowed B3 Designers to specify neon vertical signs in keeping with their favela chic theme.

The programme of work in Woking is expected to take around nine weeks to complete, but the wider regeneration project has already proved popular. Moyallen won a gold award from the British Council of Shopping Centres for their work in Woking town centre at the end of 2014.

For B3 Designers, once the Woking Las Iguanas is up and trading, the practice will be focusing its efforts on the next new opening in Swansea as the notion of favela chic is rolled out with the Las Iguanas brand.